I was an atypical child. The other kids would come home from school and happily eat their milk and cookies, but I hated milk and didn’t care much for sweets. My idea of an after-school snack was a bowl of rice mixed with lots of butter and cheese. I would make it myself and happily sit down to watch TV. That dish—which I thought I had invented—launched my culinary career.
Well, as it turns out, I didn’t invent the dish. Rice with butter and cheese, called riso in cagnone, is a rustic dish from northern Italy. There are two versions of the dish. One is from Lombardy, where rice in boiled in salted water, then topped with butter browned with garlic and sage, along with generous dusting of grated Parmesan or grana padano. The other, which we are featuring today, is from Piemonte, where the boiled rice is vigorously stirred with a local semi-hard cheese and melted butter. While not a proper risotto, this finishing mantecatura gives this version of riso in cagnone a similar creamy deliciousness.
It just goes to show that there really is nothing new under the sun.
For each serving:
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) rice
- 50g (2 oz) Alpine-type cheese (see Notes), cut into small cubes or shredded
- 25g (2 Tbs) butter
- Salt, for the water
Boil the rice in well salted water until it is cooked al dente, about 15 minutes.
While the rice is boiling, melt the butter in a small skillet, letting it turn a hazelnut brown but taking care not to let it burn.
Drain the rice, but not too well, and transfer it into a warmed bowl (or back into the still-warm pot). Add the cheese and melted butter, mix everything together very vigorously until the cheese has melted entirely and the mixture is uniform and creamy.
Notes on Riso in cagnone
The cheese is the essence of this dish, of course. In Piemonte the typical choice would be a toma, the Piedmontese member of a family of cheeses also made in France and Switzerland known Stateside by its French name tommes. And the ne plus ultra of toma cheeses is apparently from the little town of Maccagno, on the shores of the Lago Maggiore in the province of Varese. The name Maccagno brought a smile to my face, since the family name of one of my best college buddies was Maccagno. I knew his family was from Piemonte on his father’s side—and now I guess I know exactly where.
Italian toma is hard to find Stateside, and Maccagno pretty much impossible. (Toma can be ordered online from Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York.) I would think a tomme from Savoie, slightly easier to find than toma, would also do well as a substitute. Personally, I opt for other meltable Alpine cheeses like comté, gruyère (groviera) or Italian fontina, all of which are readily available at better supermarkets. Look for a cheese that is not overly aged, as they tend not to melt very well, but not so young that they haven’t had time to develop good flavor.
You want to avoid generic supermarket “Swiss” cheese if you can. It has practically no flavor at all. But if that’s all you can find, you could improve it by mixing in a bit of Parmesan for extra flavor. And really, although you’d be straying pretty far from the original recipe, any good quality, flavorful meltable cheese would work here. When I was a kid, I often used cheddar for my afternoon snack, and it was very good.
As for the rice, a risotto rice like Carnaroli or Arborio, or even a Vialone nano, would be ideal for the Piedmontese version as it creams up nicely. But really just about any varietal of rice would work.
As for many popular dishes like this, the measurements are pretty open. The amount of cheese and rice indicated above produces a dish of medium richness, but you could easily double both for a really sumptuous result.
The Lombard version
To make the version of riso in cagnone from Lombardy, brown the butter with one (or more) cloves of garlic, along with a sprig of fresh sage, until hazelnut brown. Again, take care not to let the butter burn. Remove the garlic and sage when you’re done. When the rice is cooked, serve it still piping hot on individual plates (or in a communal serving bowl), top with a generous dusting of grated Parmesan or grana padano cheese, then pour over the browned butter.
Although the basic ingredients are similar, you’ll be amazed at how different the two versions are. While the Piedmontese version is creamy and warming, in the Lombard version the rice remains more separate and the result is rather more savory. Both versions have their charms. The Piedmontese version is closer to the dish I “invented” as a kid, so it has my sentimental vote.
How Riso in cagnone got its name
The most popular story about the name riso in cagnone relates to its appearance. The little grains of rice are said to resemble insect larvae, called cagnotti in local dialect. According to another story, the name comes from the name of the town, Ma-CCAGNO, where the most typical cheese used to make it is made. Yet another relates to a colloquial use of the word cagnoni to mean “well off”, so riso in cagnoni would mean “Rich Man’s Rice”.
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) rice
- 50g (2 oz) Alpine-type cheese (see Notes)
- 25g (2 Tbs) butter
- Salt, for the water
- Boil the rice in well salted water until it is cooked al dente, about 15 minutes.
- While the rice is boiling, melt the butter in a small skillet, letting it turn a hazelnut brown but taking care not to let it burn.
- Drain the rice, but not too well, and transfer it into a warmed bowl (or back into the still-warm pot). Add the cheese and melted butter, mix everything together very vigorously until the cheese has melted entirely and the mixture is uniform and creamy.
- Serve immediately.
Wow… I don`t like risotti and eat rice not very often, but with this recipes you could bring me to love rice :). I love Egg Pasta and Gnocchi with brown butter and sage, so why not try it with a flavorful rice. Instead of an hard or semi hard alpine cheese I think a strong raw milk taleggio would make a wounderful pungent dish. Also I can see that dish with a good qualitive roasted walnut oil instead of butter… would work nice with the taleggio, I think. But than it isn`t original anymore 😉
Btw: Reading your blog frank is always a pleasure! Best English language Italian cooking blog!
That sounds fantastic, Danny. Thanks so much for the kind words. 🙂
Well, you could have told me that you came up with this recipe and I would have believed you, Frank! I’ve never heard of this, but it sounds heavenly! I’m a sucker for spaghetti with butter (nothing else), so why not rice! I’m so trying this and can’t wait!! 🙂
Well, I guess I did invent it in a sense, but I just wasn’t exactly the first… 😉
What a hearty dish. I grew up on Chinese porridge (congee) but riso in cagnone sounds a lot more interesting yet easy to put together. Will give this a try soon.
Thanks, Yi! I actually rather like congee, too, especially if there are little savory bits mixed in. But I have to agree, if I had to choose, I’d go for this…
Oh my goodness – you just threw my low-carb days out the window. I want it. I will make it. I used to come home from school and cook noodles and put it in chicken broth and use copious amounts of Parmesan on it until it melted into it. I’m with you – get rid of the milk and cookies (at least in the winter) and turn out the carbs (with lots of cheese).
Resistance is futile, Claudia! 😉 And you’re right, the same treatment with pasta is delicious, too.
I always have a great time reading your posts, Frank. At home we called this riso in bianco and the cheese was Parmigiano, a lot of it for me 😉 I also liked it with fontina.
Thanks, Simona! Gotta love that cheese… 🙂
fantastic…certainly rice with butter and cheese is italian american universal…and comforting..but knowing now there’s a bona fide pedigree Italian regional name for this dish..fantastic!! grazie for letting us know!!
Definitely. Thanks for stopping by, Peter!
Riso in Cagnone or Cookies and Milk, not a contest here. I had never been aware of this as an actually named dish, but it is something I am certain that I would devour on a cold winter’s evening. We grew up eating pastina with butter and cheese, a true comfort food which I sometimes revert to when necessary.
Love that, too…
I love this recipe. It was the first dish i made by myself in the milanese version. My mom told me to boil rice and cubes of potatoes together because have the same cooking time and then add parmesan and browned butter with sage and garlic, or in an other version onion. Potatoes are a common add to this dish also with non fried butter. Ciao.
I like the idea of adding potatoes, Milli. Will try that next time. Thanks for the tip!
Yum! I feel all warm inside just looking at the photo. It snowed again-Mannaggia-so I need to make a bowl of this! Ciao, Cristina
I bet it’d be just the ticket for a snowy day. 🙂
This sounds wonderful and a great meal on these chilly days. I gotta try it!
Let us know what you think if you do. I bet you’d like it.
What a wonderful, simple, old school recipe that is! It does look like risotto and we bet the texture is -as you mentioned- very similar in the 2nd version.
This is a recipe open for many variations as well. We’ll give a try with some rich, mature Naxos graviera. It sounds like it’s made for this dish.
Have a wonderful week ahead Frank!
Enjoy guys! Thanks for stopping by.
very good. always! I prefer rice to pasta and this is an all time favorite, since I was a child.
even now when I feel under the weather, or down… a nice piatto di riso in bianco, with loads of butter and parmigiano can bring a smile to my face. I use parmigiano because i always have a hunk of it in the fridge, but I have also made this dish with fontina, cheddar, belpaese, mozzarella and toma of course….. always a winner.
a variation would be to add a couple of whisked yolks (for 4 people) (this is very Milanese)
+ if u then add some diced, fried pancetta… u have a carbonara rice!… and here we are in plain Italian teenager sort of mad cooking (Hazan would undoubtly frowning from above)(but it is really rewarding, I confess)
I really like that carbonara rice idea… going to have to try that!
Sadly, I want this and then the cookie! I really have to try this – the comfort level of this dish had to be a “10!”
Couldn’t agree more, David.
Sounds wonderful. I’d much prefer this to a cookie!
Sounds like we’re on the same wavelength, Mimi!
Ammiro la tua precisione nello scrivere oltre alla ricetta informazioni geografiche e culinarie dell’Italia e la tua ricerca dei prodotti tipici , immagino sia difficile reperire il Maccagno e altri formaggi italiani lì negli States, bellissima ricetta Frank, buon weekend !
Grazie, Chiara. Buona settimana a te!
Now that’s what I’d call real comfort food. I could eat a bowlful right now – or anytime.
I don’t believe I’ve had this dish. Sounds wonderful! Love cheesy, starchy things like this. Thanks!
Me, too, John… 🙂
If only I could dip a spoon into your first photo to taste your dreamy Riso in Cagnone! It sounds so much better than macaroni and cheese. It’s on my must try list!
Worth a try, Kath. And it’s so easy…